Summer Learning: Bottom-Up Approaches in Development

Guest blog by Maren Wenzel (2015 summer intern | LinkedIn Profile), student at John Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies

Looking Forward <br />(CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 by UNDP)

Looking Forward
(CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 by UNDP)

This blog post is probably supposed to be about all the revelations of my summer internship. However, for me this summer was less about revelatory moments and more about seeing international development from a new angle. That may come across as underwhelming to some, but in reality the value of this additional layer of understanding was more useful to me than jumping into something totally new would have been.

I am of the belief that all experiences create their meaning within a larger context. My summer at Appropriate IT was no different. In the most direct sense the internship was complimented by an economic development course I took simultaneously. The course helped provide a greater context for the thinking within the development field while the job bridged the gap between academia and reality. Perhaps more importantly, this summer aligned with the 10 year anniversary of my first trip to a developing country – the impetus for my course of study over the last decade. As I tried to blend the theoretical frame work of my class into the day to day tasks at Appropriate IT, I began to reflect again on the initial reactions I had had when visiting East Timor in 2005 which at that time the world’s youngest democracy and nation.

I will refrain from launching into the cliché “privileged white kid goes to third world and has life changing experience” story and get to the bottom line. When I was in East Timor a primary lesson I learned was this: people all over the world are capable of determining their destinies and fixing their own problems. The Timorese people had just gained independence from a large country backed by the US government and were healing from the effects of a devastating genocide. Helpless is the last word one would use to describe them. In the countries I have travelled to since, the story is always the same. People know how to handle the problems which afflict them, they just need the resources to do so.

This is not to imply that when this first occurred to me as a 16-year-old I was having a moment of genius (though I might have thought it at the time). Authors such as Bill Easterly have covered this ground thoroughly and questions of paternalism and empowerment are ubiquitous in the field. However, spending this summer working with Appropriate IT I returned to this lesson and began reevaluating and internalizing it on a level which I never had before. Though I met many people who are working on innovative solutions to development problems and found the work done within the ICT4D space which Appropriate IT focuses on invigorating, the shadow of large bureaucratic aid organizations lingered. Multiple times I sat in the office spaces used by such organizations, eating their complimentary pastries, listening to entrenched “experts” lecture on their plans for the future of people thousands of miles away and doubted whether this was an efficient use of resources. I am not so naïve as to think that the development field is going to completely shift, or the inefficiencies and judgment errors will disappear. However, it gives me optimism that many organizations and individuals are increasingly turning to bottom-up approaches in development.

Guest blog by Maren Wenzel (2015 summer intern | LinkedIn Profile), student at John Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies

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